The Pulitzer at 100 / Score: A Film Music Documentary

Awards and film scores can be elusive. With any prestigious award steeped in tradition, there is a discussion about the greats who never won. Timing is also tricky. If only that movie or that novel had not been released in such a “strong year.” But wouldn’t one want to be included as a peer in a strong year as opposed to a weak one? Winners of these awards sometimes live in disbelief that they reached the pinnacle because it still does not seem real or because they reached it while others have not.

Film scores are elusive because, as Score: A Film Music Documentary (official site) reminds us, while we may notice they are there, we do not notice just how powerful they are in shaping our movie experiences. We are unaware of how they creep in and come at us from all sides and angles and predict our reactions before even we know what we will think or feel. Scoring a film is an art with so much to it than we realize, and first-time documentary film director Matt Schrader takes us behind the scenes to give us a glimpse at how it is done. Actors, directors, and screenwriters are not the only ones who anxiously watch moviegoers’ expressions as they sit in theaters and experience movies. Musicians who work at matching the action with the score are, again, so vitally influential that we do not even realize the extent of their impact. Score: A Film Music Documentary goes a long way in encouraging an understanding of this work, yet it will also leave you with a reminder that there will always be that element that can only be described as the magic of film.

Official Poster  https://www.facebook.com/ScoreMovie/

As a student of Academy Awards history, I was excited to see The Pulitzer at 100 to learn about the history of another award of the highest level. But even more precious was hearing the winners themselves–winners from the various fields the Pulitzer recognizes–talk about their work and also what it meant and still means to have received the honor (sometimes more than once).

I must say my favorite interview was Paula Vogel (How I Learned To Drive, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1998). The way she described writing and her experience of winning intrigued me; her passion and, well, her way with words made me want to keep writing. Michael Cunningham, oh yes. He won the fiction award in 1998 for The Hours. (Read this novel immediately.) I also highly recommend his novel A Home at the End of the World (1990). The movie adaptation of The Hours (2002) is my favorite film, and you should listen to Cunningham’s commentary on the DVD. (The movie adaptation of A Home at the End of the World [2004] leaves too much to be desired for me to suggest it for viewing. The film goes off track at what I think is too powerful a place to be ignored.)

Released at the 100th anniversary of the award, The Pulitzer at 100′s timing is impeccable, and during the question and answer period after the screening, director (Academy Award® winner for Strangers No More [2010]) Kirk Simon reminded me why I admire documentary filmmakers so much. They have an idea, they have passion for that idea, they pull all the pieces together, and they work hard, many times with just themselves–the filmmaker–and a small crew. They get in and educate us and bring us their careful consideration of a subject, and we are better for it. Paula Vogel made me want to keep writing, and seeing the diversity of extraordinary talent from journalism (the Joseph Pulitzer biographical narrative is top-notch in the film), letters, drama, and music made me proud to be a writer and a person who values the art of storytelling.

I love documentaries. They bring the elusive to the forefront–but I still marvel at the magic of film.

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Get Out – for the right reasons

At the theater after my initial reflections on the immensely important work of Get Out, directed and written by Jordan Peele, my first thought was that I hope it is popular for the right reasons. While clearly there are people who are aware of what this film means and knowledgeable about why it is–again I use the word “important”–after my friend and film scholar Mary Dalton (I always rise up and listen closer when she uses that word), I also know that it is making a lot of money and a lot of people are seeing it, especially young people. So my hope is that it is popular for the right reasons with every single person who views it.

This is a movie from the perspective of a young African American man. And it is about how we experience life in a white world–in other words, how we experience everyday life in America. The film portrays the strangeness of the experience of feeling like you are on display. Being asked to speak on behalf of “all African Americans,” dealing with life as an African American football player who your “fans” see as not human but as an animal they would deem useless if you could no longer entertain with beyond-human physical talent (listen to this story from Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger), and otherwise having people treat you as an exotic when you are simply living your life are not even reaching half the iceberg. This strangeness of navigating life in America is exactly what Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) experiences. The outer layer of forced attempts at false normalcy that cannot be contained for very long is what gaslights so many of us into believing that we are the ones who are misconstruing situations when we are not and have never been the problem.

The world of Get Out is the result of the inability of many white people to deal with their deep-rooted feelings of uneasiness around us, and the racist leanings they cannot or do not acknowledge. The longer those notions go unchecked the worse they become. Do not ignore the extremity of the plot line and dismiss it as fiction. What happens is more real than most are willing to admit. Because it can be dismissed as “mere fiction,” what happens takes forms that seem less treacherous and less dangerous, but it is treacherous and dangerous. There are events in the film that are symbolic but also very literal in the mind games and the gaslighting and the devaluing and underestimation of the abilities, hopes, aspirations, and very humanity of African Americans. And it is all rooted in what is termed the original sin of this country. We see the teachery and danger in American life in the ways African American people and immigrants and anyone deemed the “other” are treated. But those not directly affected (and many who are affected) must open their eyes to see it. I hope Get Out is popular for the right reasons for every single person who sees it. If it is, it has opened many, many eyes. It is a masterful film, and its existence makes the landscape so much better and more real.

I feel as I did when I saw Moonlight in the respect that this is a story and a concept that was so overdue. We need to see life from the eyes of African Americans, and the stories need to be truthful.

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director Jordan Peele with artwork inspired by the motion picture http://www.getoutfilm.com/gallery/

Kedi – love and care without expectation

 

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director Ceyda Torun (hurriyetdailynews via kedifilm.com)

I have an aunt and a grandmother who feed stray cats who come and go as they please. Does it take a special empathy to take care of an animal? I think it takes a special empathy and a special love to take care of anyone or anything when there is no benefit of a return, whether that be some sort of pay back in terms of credit for good works or guaranteed companionship–when there is no point at which the caregiver demands a certain sustained, prescribed thankfulness or compensation.

Kedi, from first-time feature film director Ceyda Torun, gives us the picture of street cats who make their lives in the city of Istanbul and shows us the people who take care of them. Cameras follow the cats on their level as the felines go about their daily tasks while going on adventures, protecting their young, guarding their territory, and spending a little time with the various caregivers who protect them whenever they come around, feed them, and love them no matter where they are. Seeing Istanbul from the cats’ perspectives is satisfying, as is hearing the featured Istanbulites describe their feelings for the cats and the importance the animals embody in the communities they inhabit.

I was fascinated by everything short of anthropomorphism (by which I am not amused) in how the film shows us the cats’ individual personalities in close-up. A man in the film remarks, “People who don’t love animals can’t love people either.” There is a lot to be said about love between people and between people and animals in terms of culture, environment, and identity, but I tend to agree, in general, with that sentiment. While my interest waned a little more than halfway through this documentary feature, I am glad I saw and learned about an aspect of a culture that might have otherwise gone unhighlighted.

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official poster (kedifilm.com)

 

The Sense of an Ending–I can see my future. 

 

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CBS Films

 

I can feel myself becoming more like Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) each day. I hope I am only becoming him in the best ways, but no one is perfect. There are weeks when you are simply done by Thursday, and the sight of people demanding your attention over frivolous matters makes you so exasperated you want to get in your car, come home, and go to bed as early as 8 a.m. And dealing with “walking cliché people” who talk like they’ve swallowed 300 of the most generic greeting cards is increasingly unbearable. Incidentally these are the same people who don’t seem to be aware that they’re on earth with other human beings who can see their litter, hear their loud children, inhale their cigarette smoke, and see them taking up the entire sidewalk with their obnoxious friends.

However, I’d like to think that my hypothetical daughter–Michelle Dockery plays Susie Webster, Tony and his ex-wife Harriet’s (Harriet Walter) actual daughter in the film–would not hesitate to call on me in the most serious, intimate matters in the midst of which a child would need a parent. But again, life is not always so simple, and The Sense of an Ending (directed by Ritesh Batra, written by Nick Payne, and based on the novel by Julian Barnes) reminds us that our idea of ourselves is not always in sync with how others perceive us. We can change before we are aware of it–or we can simply be without knowing how we are. The past and how we make sense of it–and how we can live in our own heads–make up the multiple realities in which we live.

I often think that it is “a lot of work” to maintain relationships and my own interests, not to mention focus on the future I want to have. But we try, make mistakes, and try again. And occasionally we have breakthroughs that put us in a better place. The Sense of an Ending is my kind of film. It is about people and memory–and yes, the relationships that make up our lives and make memories what they are.

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CBS Films

 

 

Top Films of 2016

Here goes. As indicated in my collage below, this has been a wonderful year. If you have not seen the movies I have placed in my top 10 list for 2016, run and go see them. Later I will be adding the other films I saw and indicating which ones come highly recommended (and which ones come just plain recommended). For now, see my top 10 and predictions.

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My Top 10

1. MOONLIGHT
2. JACKIE
3. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
4. HIDDEN FIGURES
5. LA LA LAND
6. THINGS TO COME
7. 20th CENTURY WOMEN
8. AMERICAN HONEY
9. THE INNOCENTS
10. LOVING

Predictions . . .

PICTURE
Will Win: La La Land
Should Win: Moonlight

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will Win: Viola Davis, Fences
Should Win: Viola Davis

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Should Win: Mahershala Ali

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Will Most Likely Win: Emma Stone, La La Land
Should Win: Natalie Portman, Jackie

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Will Win: Denzel Washington, Fences
Should Win: Denzel Washington
Could Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea

SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION)
My Top 3 (from the nominees)
1. SING
2. SILENT NIGHTS
3. TIMECODE
I recommend the other nominees, THE RAILROAD LADY and ENEMIES WITHIN

SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
My Top 3 (from the nominees)
1. BORROWED TIME
2. PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES
3. PEARL

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
THE INNOCENTS and THINGS TO COME are in my top 10 list for the year. I did not see all five nominees, but I highly recommend A MAN CALLED OVE and THE SALESMAN. I recommend TONI ERDMANN. I also highly recommend (in random order) ELLE, THE WAIT (starring Juliette Binoche), THE HANDMAIDEN, MY GOLDEN DAYS, and A TALE OF LOVE AND DARKNESS (written and directed by Natalie Portman). You’ll see these again when I update this post.

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
I have not yet seen nominees O.J.: Made in America or Fire at Sea. I do, however, highly recommend (in random order) 13th (nominee), Maya Angelou and Still I Rise; Tickled; Life, Animated (nominee);  Cameraperson; The First Monday in May; Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World; Unlocking the Cage; and I Am Not Your Negro (nominee). I recommend Weiner, The Last Man on the Moon, and The Witness.

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DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
My Top 3 (from the nominees)
1. THE WHITE HELMETS
2. 4.1 MILES
3. EXTREMIS
I highly recommend the other nominees, WATANI: MY HOMELAND and JOE’S VIOLIN

Be sure to check back for a list of recommendations including every feature film I saw for 2016. Enjoy the Oscars!

Amy – Love really is a “losing game.”

I know I am behind with posting, but I will just keep plugging along. Time to go back to July with Amy.


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I knew it would be painful to watch Asif Kapadia’s documentary, Amy. I knew it would also be hard to write about it. I first listened to the Terry Gross Fresh Air interview (transcript here) with Kapadia and Winehouse’s former manager, Nick Shymansky. The saddest part of that Fresh Air show for me was learning that when a teenage Amy told her mother about her new discovery of bulimia, her mother, whose non-assertive personality prevented her from parenting her daughter, did nothing.

In the documentary, I learned how her father’s affair and her parents’ divorce was the turning point in Winehouse’s life that was the beginning of her downward spiral that resulted in her death at 27. I learned how her father exploited her. I began to see her as a girl and then a woman who never had a chance. As someone who has been truly touched by her music, I cannot help but wish that she had not had the pain that inspired so many of her songs. Because Amy brilliantly shows us the path that Ms. Winehouse took from life as a happy child with beyond-extraordinary talent to one as a star haunted by demons and hounded by the press (and the general, insensitive public), I could see clearly her spiral that seemed inevitable because those she loved the most were not there in meaningful ways. She was doomed. She deserved to have a better life. I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I do not believe a 27-year-old should be sacrificed for some “greater” cause.

The home videos, the interviews, the behind-the-scenes expressions of emotions, and the very well-placed Winehouse songs (with lyrics on the screen for us to follow) make the structure of the film create an impact that is that much more powerful. I found myself wondering, “When will it get to the part when she becomes world famous?” But I was glad that I was seeing so much of the journey. And ultimately that world fame was, as it often is, destructive.

Amy is a success because of the care taken to make sure we understand Winehouse’s humanity and her sincerity. She is a hero to me. She had everyone around her, but she actually had no one and held on for as long as she could. She gave us her art that she could never quite do the way she wanted. What she wanted for her career she never realized, but I take away her genius. I also take away the peace and self-image that she should have had; instead, those gifts and that security were selfishly and brutally taken away from her. If you are a fan of genius and true sensitivity and true art, see Amy.